Putting Sustainability Science in Practice at Mountainside Middle School

Molly Cashion with Mountainside Middle School students Molly Cashion, a recent MA graduate in Sustainability (May 2016), worked on a project in North Scottsdale with Mountainside Middle School from August 2015 thru May 2016 funded by both the School of Sustainability at ASU and a GK-12 grant. Cashion worked with two 7th grade teachers, Jim Wesser and Karen Batson, to implement sustainability science lesson plans into their classrooms and work towards creating a more sustainable campus. The orginal project idea was to provide Cashion with experience in a K-12 classroom communicating sustainability science. Both teachers worked with Cashion by providing feedback on the lesson content and her presentation skills. Originally, Cashion worked with the teachers to give biweekly sustainability science lessons in the classroom, but the project evolved in exciting and organic ways based on student interest. “Although it wasn’t an original goal, we created the STEAM (Sustainability in Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) Team of 12-16 interested students that started a school garden in the courtyard between all the classrooms,” Cashion said. While enthusiasm was high, the project still came with its own unique set of complexities and challenges. “One of the main challenges I faced was classroom management,” Cashion said. “Jim and Karen helped manage the room as I ran the lesson, but trying to get 50-75 seventh graders to pay attention is a tall order. Also, when teaching about sustainability issues, I felt caught between showing the harsh reality of the problem and wanting to be upbeat about the future.” Cashion also had to navigate the nuance of balancing between giving specific direction and letting the students’ own passion guide the STEAM club. “I tried to act as more of a consultant/liaison/cheerleader for sustainability," said Cashion. “I offered advice and suggestions for implementing sustainability in their school, but it was mostly driven by Jim, Karen, and the students. For example, when they wanted to plant the garden, I suggested different resources for them to plant it and then provided them with the plants.” Cashion found more outcomes from the project than she had initially anticipated. In her last sustainability science lesson, she had all the students make a sustainability pledge and paste it to a gigantic paper “SustainabiliTREE” on the cafeteria wall. One of Cashion’s favorite pledges? A girl who pledged to make an art project using solely natural paints and materials. “Another outcome was the garden,” Cashion said. “After some of the plants started producing, the students that were part of the STEAM Team would go by the garden and pick off strawberries and eat them on the way to class.” Cashion, too, was able to learn from the experience in a variety of ways. Aside from the resume-builidng experience wherein she developed both her presentation and sustainability science communication skills for younger audiences, she also provided an anecdote illustrating the invaluable experiences that occur in applied learning environments like this. “The students had spent a week developing a plan for the garden – measuring the space, researching which plants would do well, developing a watering schedule, etc.," she said. “On the day that I arrived with the plants they had requested, they met me outside with an enthusiasm I have never seen before. The plan went out the window! The kids started grabbing plants and planting them haphazardly all over the garden space. We were able to corral them into semi-straight lines of similar plants. The plants grew magnificently! The lesson for me was that enthusiasm goes a long way and plants just want to grow. I had to release my sense of control over which plant was going to go where and just enjoy the moment.” Cashion now works at ASU with the K-12 Sustainability Education program witin the Walton Sustainability Solutions Initiative and reflects on how her project experience informs her current work. “Now I help teachers implement their own sustainability projects,” Cashion said. “I feel that with this experience, I have a better idea of what they’re going through. The education system is very tough for people trying to implement projects like these. The principal at Mountainside Middle School was very friendly and open to ideas, but there isn’t infrastructure to aid these teachers. Most of the time they have to do it themselves on top of their other commitments and sometimes with their own money. So, I not only gained the experience of implementing a project, but empathy for the already-overworked teachers.” We asked Cashion what advice she would give to other students considering a solutions-focused project like this. “The experience is fun and rewarding! When I left, all the students made a HUGE poster that said ‘We will miss you Miss Molly.’ It was so sweet and continues to inspire me. Not only that, but I think this project played a big part in getting hired at my current job. In my interview I was able to point at specific challenges I experienced in my project and demonstrate how and why I decided to proceed. Also, make friends with the janitorial staff! That is one thing that I was unable to do, but it would have made a huge difference.” There are still ways to build upon this project! Check out the project link below for more details.